Coloradans asked to make secession official
GREELEY, COLO. | Colorado has been described as a classic purple state, but in many ways it’s more like two states, one red and one blue, fighting to occupy — and dominate — the same territory.
That is where the 51st state movement comes in. Eleven rural counties, upset over a growing divide with the Democrat-dominated state government on guns, energy and social issues, are asking voters on the Nov. 5 ballot whether their elected officials should pursue the creation of another state carved from northern Colorado.
It sounds radical, but then again, there is nothing ordinary about the political climate in Colorado. The historic Sept. 10 recall election that brought down two Democratic state senators was only the latest salvo in the ongoing trench war between liberals in the Denver-Boulder corridor and conservatives in the rest of the state.
“The polarization in this state is more pronounced than we’ve ever seen it,” said Dick Wadhams, political strategist and former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party.
For proof, look no further than the Nov. 5 nonbinding ballot question. At the same time 11 counties are weighing the secession question, four liberal-minded municipalities are considering whether to place a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.
The kicker is that nobody would be terribly surprised if all the measures pass, given the state’s fractious political divide. No polls have been released on either the 51st-state proposal or anti-fracking measures.
While the anti-fracking movement has generated stiff opposition from the oil and gas industry, there has been little organized opposition to the 51st-state initiative.
At a recent debate hosted by the League of Women Voters, about two dozen opponents stood in front of the arena holding sheets of paper with messages that included “Don’t Divide Colorado.”
‘Guarded confidence’ for statehood
Meanwhile, large blue signs declaring “Send a Message: Vote Yes on 51st State” dot the farm fields and truck stops along rural highways.
“We have guarded confidence that things will go well,” said 51st State Initiative organizer Jeffrey Hare. “We know a small group of Democratic operatives are passionately opposed, and they’ve got about 15 or 20 of them writing letters to the editor.”
The biggest challenge to the campaign has come from three Greeley lawyers who argue that only citizens can advocate for a 51st state. The initiatives were placed on the ballots by votes of the county commissions.
“[We] found no statutory authority in Colorado giving the commissioners the power to advocate, investigate or initiate the creation of a 51st state,” Robert Ruyle, a lawyer who serves on the Weld Water and Sewer Board, said at the Greeley debate.
The lawyers have asked the Weld County Council, which oversees government operations, to weigh in on the issue. Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer responded that the commission, which has the ability to refer questions to the ballot, acted at the behest of constituents.
“We have that authority, and the only official act that this board has done is refer something to the ballot, which we have the authority to do,” she said.
‘War on rural Colorado’
Behind the 51st-state campaign is the gaping rural-urban split exemplified by the 2013 legislative sessions, which launched what critics describe as the “war on rural Colorado.”
Democrats, who control both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office, pushed an aggressive liberal agenda that included restrictions on gun ownership and a doubling of the state’s renewable-energy mandate for rural consumers only.
Many rural Coloradans, in counties such as Sedgwick and Logan in the northeastern corner and Moffat in the northwest, were furious, arguing that the bills were written and rushed through committee without their input.
“This state that many of us grew up in, the state that many of us love, is slipping away into something many Colorado residents, many Weld County residents, no longer recognize,” Ms. Kirkmeyer said at the debate. “We need to stand up for ourselves. It’s time to send a message: We will no longer be ignored.”
But the traditional Western politics that long dominated the state are shifting rapidly, and not in the favor of more conservative districts. Young professionals in the growing cities tend to back gay rights and other liberal social positions, and the surging Hispanic population — up 40 percent in the past dozen years — helped President Obama carry the state twice. Mr. Obama was the first Democrat to carry Colorado in two consecutive elections since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The counties that want to secede have a combined population of fewer than 400,000. Weld County is the most populous with 252,000, and the 2010 census counted 2,379 residents of Sedgwick County. By contrast, Denver County and Boulder County combined had more than 903,000 residents in the 2010 national census.
Breaking up is hard to do
Carving a new state out of an old one isn’t easy, whatever the political calculus. Even if the ballot measures pass, the state legislature would be required to amend the Colorado Constitution to reconfigure the borders and refer a request for a new state to Congress. Approving a 51st state would require a majority vote of both houses of Congress, although the U.S. Constitution doesn’t require the signature of the president.
Despite similar rumblings in recent decades in Nebraska, Washington, California and New York, historical precedent is lacking. Fully admitted states have been broken up only twice since the boundaries of the newly independent Colonies were finalized in the 1790s. Maine was part of Massachusetts until 1820, and West Virginia seceded from Virginia during the Civil War.
Steve Mazurana, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Northern Colorado, told rural residents at the debate that they need to do a better job of playing the political game. He insisted that the state legislature “shut out no one” during the session.
“You’re not disenfranchised,” Mr. Mazurana said. “You need better lobbyists, you need to elect new legislators who can do the job of persuading. … You’re not going to be better off under a 51st state. You’re still going to be better off under the state of Colorado.”